December 4, 2006

One Last Helping of Pork

The Christian Science Monitor reported last month that President Bush's proposed budget for fiscal 2007 will terminate government funding for research into geothermal and hydropower. The White House's position is that these technologies are "mature," and that, if there is truly merit to developing them further, venture capitalists will step in to fill the void.

Given that energy independence would go a long way to reducing U.S. interests in volatile parts of the world such as the Persian Gulf, it would be reasonable to expect that the amount of funding from the government for geothermal and hydropower must be quite large. After all, the savings would have to be significant in order to justify impeding the move away from fossil fuels - and entanglement with countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq - wouldn't it?

Well, not exactly. The sum in question is 24 million dollars - that's "million" with an "m" not "billion" with a "b" - or roughly what it costs to fund just over three days of the Iraq War.

To be sure, there is merit in the idea that private investors will embrace worthy technologies, but there is also the question of speed to market, and the sooner the United States can put a dent in its dependence on oil - foreign oil in particular - the better off the country will be from both environmental and security perspectives. From the Monitor article:
"The idea that geothermal is a mature technology that doesn't need further research doesn't even pass the laugh test," says Mr. Gawell. ... Together, high-tech hydropower and geothermal resources could contribute at least enough power to replace more than 100 medium-size coal-fired power plants with emissions-free electricity - about the number now on the drawing board. ... "There's this view that hydropower is a technology that's been around a long time, and there's not much more we can do to improve it - but we've got the next generation of hydropower - ocean, tidal, wave and conduit energy coming on," says Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association, a Washington trade group.
The share of private equity going to clean energy companies has indeed risen rapidly over the past several years, but there is something undeniably out of whack when American petroleum companies - representatives of one of the most mature industries in the country - received as much as $4 billion in tax breaks last year, and nascent technologies that are both continuing to evolve and showing promises of practicality are cut off completely. In fact, according to a recent piece in The International Herald-Tribune:
In the United States, annual federal spending for all energy research and development - not just the research aimed at climate-friendly technologies - is less than half what it was a quarter-century ago. It has sunk to $3 billion a year in the current budget from an inflation-adjusted peak of $7.7 billion in 1979, according to several different studies.
The effect of this trend is that, as Tom Engelhart wrote in The Nation's blog:
Practically speaking, what that means is: From solar power to wind power, the U.S. is ceding a lucrative energy future to other countries. Whatever breakthroughs might be achieved in alternative fuel development are ever less likely to happen here.
Meanwhile, S. 3711, the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, was passed in the Senate, and is now on its way to the House of Representatives where the lame-duck Republican 109th Congress is looking to dole out one last, dinner-sized helping of pork to its friends in Big Oil before heading for the exits. While there have been hyperbolic claims about potentially enormous finds in the Gulf, it is far from certain that petroleum reserves there would be significant at all. In fact, the U.S. Minerals Management Service estimates that the area addressed by the bill would only yield enough natural gas for between 26 and 34 days at current national consumption rates, and productive wells would not be online until 2013 at the earliest.

With 80% of the nation's offshore oil reserves already open for development and more than 4,000 oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico that have yet to be developed, it is difficult to see the urgent need for the passage of this bill, especially when potential damage and resultant pollution from frequent hurricanes is considered. But while the national interest in opening up an area that has been off-limits to drilling for more than a quarter century might be hazy, there is little question that the oil industry is rapacious in its desire for new territory, or just as importantly, that revenue re-apportionment language within S. 3711 would benefit Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana - Republican strongholds all, with the possible exception of Florida - to the tune of $60 billion over the next 25 years at the expense of the rest of the nation.

Although the threatened House vote on S. 3711 was postponed today by Republican leadership because of insufficient votes, the outgoing GOP remains committed to bringing it back to the floor before handing over control of Congress to the new Democratic majority at the close of this session. So, while their due diligence to the interests of the United States can be questioned, never let it be said that President Bush and the Republicans of the 109th Congress were anything but dutiful in their pork barrel spending for supportive special interests, no matter what the consequences to national energy security, the environment, or the health of the the country's technology sector.

When the final gavel of this Congress is struck on Friday, it will be a very good thing.

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